The Agenda Item Was Tabled; Alumni-Led Petition Supports Freeman as Namesake
ABOVE: Texas Southern University Library Learning Center
The Texas Southern University (TSU) Board of Regents has considered a now-unresolved proposal to name the new Library Learning Center after Dr. John M. Rudley, who served as TSU President from 2008 to 2016. He is currently President Emeritus.
Upon learning of the plan, a group of TSU alumni started a petition to make the recently departed Dr. Thomas F. Freeman, who founded the debate team in 1949 and served the university for more than 70 years, the library’s namesake.
The legendary debate coach died on June 6 at 100 years of age. The university’s honors college was named after Freeman in 2009, during Rudley’s tenure. TSU’s debate suite has been enshrined as the T.F. Freeman Center for Forensic Excellence.
The Change.org petition to name the new edifice after “national icon and debate trailblazer Dr. Thomas F. Freeman” was directed to the Board of Regents. So far, there are more than 3,200 signatures.
TSU alumni, including former members of the debate team, spoke at the June 25th Board of Regents meeting, which was held via teleconference because of COVID-19.
Following public comment and an executive session, the Rudley item was tabled.
In 2018, officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Library Learning Center and promoted the facility as “an intellectual hub not only for the university, but for the community at large.” The contemporary, angular building featuring a five-story atrium is adjacent to the Barbara Jordan—Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
“Dr. Freeman is the only person I believe that has the notoriety to be placed on the building at this time,” said Blake Green, a two-time TSU alumnus who is among those who started the petition. “Right now, we know that Dr. Rudley is being considered. … I think it would be best to put someone on there who is more deserving and has impacted more lives.”
The community purpose of the library requires the Board of Regents to do more outreach about the naming, he added.
“We think it would be best to get community input,” said Green, a former president of the Jesse H. Jones School of Business Alumni Chapter. “We want to have a discussion wherein the community can have buy-in in terms of whoever’s name is on it.”
TSU has a seven-page naming policy for physical and academic entities to recognize “individuals, businesses or organizations who have made exemplary or meritorious service contributions or enduring financial contributions to the university” or “whose extraordinary accomplishments advance the University’s educational mission, its standing in the community, and/or aesthetic quality.”
The guidelines are “intended to encourage private support through naming opportunities,” though “in some circumstances, this policy allows structures, facilities, collections and academic entities to be named without a gift.”
A Named Gifts Program Committee reviews naming proposals and shall “judge each situation on its own merits.” According to university policy, that committee shall be chaired by the provost and include an associate provost, the vice president of facilities and construction, the director of general accounting, the chief financial officer, the vice president for university advancement, a representative of the Office of General Counsel and the appropriate dean or director for the structure or facility being named.
A recent example of a building naming associated with a financial gift happened last year.
The main building of TSU’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences was named in 1964 to honor pioneering Black pharmacist Spurgeon Nathaniel Gray, an early supporter of the school.
In 2019, the TSU Board of Regents voted to rename the building for Chicago pharmacist Joan Marie Lafleur, who died in 2016 and willed $3.1 million to the university—the largest single gift to that date by a TSU graduate.
A TSU Board of Regents agenda item signed by Interim President Ken Huewitt on June 19 said that the Named Gifts Program Committee received a written proposal from the regents to honorarily name the new Library Learning Center as the “Dr. John M. Rudley Library Learning Center.” The committee recommended that Huewitt take the proposal to the regents for “discussion and action.”
A resolution to approve the naming of the Library Learning Center for Rudley enumerates accomplishments during his 8-year tenure:
• TSU enriched its academic standing by starting to offer civil and electrical engineering degrees; adding two master’s degrees in education to the online program, a new emergency management degree and an aviation sciences flight program; launching a new maritime transportation management and security program with the Port of Houston as well as adding degrees in urban planning, sports management and entertainment and recording management
• TSU received a $2.74 million grant from the Houston Endowment to start the Urban Academic Village to enhance the undergraduate experience
• TSU opened the $41 million, state-funded Technology Building
• TSU issued $65 million in bonds to finance two parking garages and two residence halls
• TSU partnered with the Dynamo professional soccer team in the development of the $83 million BBVA Compass Stadium for TSU football
• TSU secured 100% funding and began construction of an 800-bed freshman dorm
• TSU secured 100% of the $50 million needed for the completion of the Library Learning Center
Last year, Freeman’s papers were retired at the Robert J. Terry Library, which was named after an interim university president who served briefly in the 1980s.
The Granville T. Sawyer Auditorium, a campus centerpiece, is named for the fourth president of TSU. The Leonard H.O. Spearman Technology Building was dedicated in 2014 to the university’s sixth president during Rudley’s tenure. There is a campus building named after Ambassador R. O’Hara Lanier, the first president (and one after his wife, Garriette Lanier, a librarian); at least two structures named for TSU’s second president Samuel M. Nabrit and a hall after fifth president Everett O. Bell.
Rudley left a venerable legacy with documented successes, though his missteps are deeply memorable to detractors.
One of the most public, replete with campus protests, was sparked after he requested fresh paint over two beloved murals he called “eyesores” inside Hannah Hall, the administration building. The art was the work of retired TSU professor Harvey Johnson who studied under renowned artist, muralist and educator Dr. John Biggers, who founded the university’s art department. This loss of history made national news.
In late 2015, the #TakeBackTxSU hashtag emerged on social media to catalog student grievances regarding housing, financial aid and campus safety. In the days after, Rudley announced his intention to step down at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.
Some of the younger alumni have lingering ill feelings. They continue to intentionally misspell the name of the President Emeritus as “Ridley” on T-shirts that list former TSU presidents and in other forums.
TSU alumna Georgia Provost, a longtime university advocate and community activist, has had her disagreements with Rudley, but supports naming the library after him because of his history with TSU and his leadership as president.
He entered a situation in early 2008 where the former president, Dr. Priscilla Slade, had been fired and faced criminal charges. At that time, the university was reeling from declining enrollment, low graduation rates and a damaged reputation.
Rudley, who served as TSU’s vice president of fiscal affairs and internal auditor during the 1980s, is credited for returning TSU to a financially sound status during his presidency.
“He’s a finance man. He got the money for the library. He started a rebranding campaign and accomplished three things: increased enrollment, the enhanced branding and image of TSU, and support from the local, national and international levels,” Provost said. “You give credit where credit is due. TSU is a better university because Dr. Rudley was its 11th president.”
You can view the Freeman library petition at change.org/freemanlibrary.